Despite deadline, no plan yet to pay for South Coast Rail

Politics

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — Last year, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration promised that by the end of 2018 it would release a plan to pay for the long-promised South Coast Rail project.

Now it’s four months into 2019 — and local residents are still waiting.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack’s self-imposed deadline came and went without any announcement from the Mass. Department of Transportation or the MBTA about how they expect to cover the estimated $957-million cost of extending train service from Boston to New Bedford and Fall River.

The Baker administration has split South Coast Rail into two phases, and that amount would only cover the first phase, sending diesel trains from New Bedford and Fall River to South Station on a winding route using the existing Middleboro line. (The full electrified line to Stoughton would be done years from now as Phase 2, at a cost of $3.2 billion.)

The administration has promised to have trains running by 2022. Yet a draft five-year capital plan released by the MBTA last week puts the South Coast Rail project budget at only $42 million, with just $9 million to be spent through 2024. (The draft was first reported by CommonWealth Magazine.)

Judi Riley, a spokesperson for MassDOT, downplayed the significance of the document. The $9 million and $42 million numbers “are preliminary figures for next year’s Capital Investment Plan and do not yet reflect the finance plan for South Coast Rail which will be released soon,” Riley said in an email.

The agency also notes it has started South Coast Rail capital projects and is making progress on permitting for the Phase 1 line and its six planned stations.

In an interview earlier this year, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell expressed limited concern about the delay in releasing a financing plan. “I’d like to see things go faster,” Mitchell said on Newsmakers in February.

Massachusetts governors have been promising trains to New Bedford and Fall River since the early 1990s. Unlike some South Coast leaders, Mitchell thinks the region needs to focus less on the train service, though he does support the project.

“I have long been critical of the mindset around it, which is that it’s somehow this silver bullet for our economy in Southeastern Massachusetts,” he said. “‘If only you connect us to Boston’ — as though it were this economic umbilical cord — ‘and then all will be well.’ And my attitude is, it’s one of many things that have to happen in order for us to be competitive.”

Former Mass. Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi, who opposes the Baker administration’s two-phase approach to South Coast Rail, also downplayed the delay.

“Self-imposed deadlines are generally treated as aspirational, not mandatory dates,” Aloisi told WPRI 12 in an email. “So I don’t read too much into it other than this: a viable and credible plan for this project isn’t the easiest thing to come up with.”

However, Aloisi reiterated his concern about Baker’s plan. “I do not think it will provide riders with the kind of service they will be attracted to, it will miss downtown Taunton, and it will degrade service on the Old Colony Line as it approaches Boston,” he said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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